Quackery at the University of Toronto, redux

Three weeks ago or so, I expressed dismay at what I perceived as an autism quackfest being held at the University of Toronto. Worse, that quackfest had been partially funded by a grant from a very prestigious children's charity, The SickKids Foundation, which in response to complaints about its sponsoring the autism quackfest known as AutismOne/Autism Canada 2009 Conference, wrote a limp and pusillanimous form e-mail that it sent to everyone who complained. It was truly disappointing to see that an organization that should be supporting science-based research into the treatment of children's cancer and other serious diseases that primarily affect children would be lending its money, name, and prestige to autism quackery, including anti-vaccine loons, homeopaths, and "energy medicine" practitioners.

One salutary effect of my posts was that the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. which had been previously listed on the early advertisements as a co-sponsor of this event, apparently told AutismOne to stop using its name. Certainly, more recent iterations of the Autism Canada website and advertisements show no such affiliation anymore.

However, lest you doubt that this quackfest will go ahead regardless, check this out. A reader kindly scanned an actual pamphlet advertising this "conference" and sent them to me. Here is the cover:


Note how the Dalla Lana School of Public Health is still listed as a sponsor. It's possible that this is an old brochure, however. Here is the rest of the brochure. Click on each image to see a full size scan:



I still find it truly depressing that the SickKids Foundation sees nothing wrong with funding this nonsense, and I sincerely hope that this is an older brochure and that the Dalla Lana School of Public Health has made it very plain that it does not support autism quackery.

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I haven't been here long enough to know all about this. Who is this Martha Herbert person? Her qualifications sound great until you get a little further down where it starts sounding like mumbo-jumbo.

what exactly sounds like mumbo jumbo to you?


this website will explain a bit more about her background and links to some of her published articles. She is the founder of the TRANSCEND research laboratory, just click around you should be able acquire the info you are looking for.

By skeptiquette (not verified) on 12 Sep 2009 #permalink

My letter to Deborah Blois, CME program coordinator, the College of Family Physicians of Canada, who are providing professional accreditation.

Dear Deborah Blois,
according to documents reproduced on Science Blog, Respectful Insolence The College of Family Physicians of Canada is offerering accreditation to medical professionals who attend the practitioner training day at the AutismOne conference in Toronto on Friday, October 30th.

This training endorses the fringe view of autism as a treatable biomedical. According to the flyer this encompasses "intestinal inflammation/dysbiosis, metabolic abnormalities, immune system abnormalities, oxidative stress abnormalities. These are areas of deep contention within the world of autism research.

Intestinal inflammation depends almost exclusively on the work of Dr Andrew Wakefield and his collaborators who are seeking to establish a new condition, autistic entero-colitis that is linked to the MMR vaccine. No independent researcher has replicated their findings and the most recent research contradicts their findings.

Metabolic abnormalities in autism refer to an alleged impaired ability to metabolize certain proteins, specifically casein and gluten. These are supposed to cause gastro-intestinal doisorders in autistic subjects. Again the most recent research challenges this view. The hypothesis originated in abnormal profiles for urinary peptides in autistic subjects. But modern techniques using the latest equipment have failed to replicate these findings.

Immune system abnormalities are inferred from increased cytokine levels in post mortem studies of autistic subjects. But the researchers themselves dispute this interpretation of their work. A key work is Vargas, 2005 that is often cited as proof that inflammation as a result of immune system abnormalities is implicated in the aetiology of autism. But the senoir author in this study Carlos A. Pardo-Villamizar cautiously points out in a press release (Science Blog 2004) that, âit is not yet clear whether [the immune activation] is destructive or beneficial or both.â On the question of treatments he says that "much more research would be needed to establish the validity of this approach.â

Oxidative stress abnormalities also lacks a theoretical basis. It first emerged in a paper by Jill James but treating the oxidative stress did not treat the autism. Others, including a headline speaker for the mainstream AutismOne conference, Dan Rossignol, advocate increasing the potential for oxidative stress by the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Some of their nostrums do not merely contradict each other's science. Some are anti-science. Rudi Verspoor will be talking on homeopathic remedies for autism!

In short, the entire conference is severely challenged in terms of science based medicine and I find it surprising that you are prepared to accredit the conference. The organizers will only use this as "proof" that their alternative therapies have the support of the College of Family Physicians of Canada. As the parent of a young man with autism and a professional with 25 years experience of teaching young people with autism I sincerely hope that they are wrong in this assumption.

I am Canadian. The shame...it burns.

By jackrabbit (not verified) on 12 Sep 2009 #permalink

RE: Martha Herbert --


Start at page four. She apparently thinks that "genetic" means "manifests immediately upon birth". (Which if true would mean that we'd all spring from the womb fully grown, since our growth is, y'know, genetic.) Hence her getting all het up about brain changes that occur after birth, without recognizing that said brain changes could (and in fact almost certainly were) programmed before birth.

Phoenix Woman said "Start at page four. She apparently thinks that "genetic" means "manifests immediately upon birth""


My oldest child only showed sign of a genetic heart condition (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) when he was fourteen. My younger children were tested and showed no sign of abnormal heart muscle growth, I thought they missed the genetic dice roll. My oldest son's new cardiologist (switch from pediatric to adult doctor!) told me that HCM can manifest itself well into adulthood, and that my younger children should continue to be monitored.

Actually, if you click on those links on the PedCAM website what you'll find is lots of good quality studies regarding "CAM". Some show some benefit to the therapies being studies while others show none. Isn't this the kind of thing we want, rather than abitrary claims of effectiveness? There are also articles on, for instance, interactions between chemotherapy and "natural health products". I think that's important for physicians to know.

As for the autism conference, I hadn't heard about this previously, and I am appalled. I trained at Sick Kids and I can't imagine how this was allowed to happen; it's not at all in keeping of the philosophy of the people at Sick Kids/U of T who diagnose and treat autism. I'll be writing my letter of protest, though it sounds like it won't have much effect.

By Joanna Holland (not verified) on 13 Sep 2009 #permalink

She apparently thinks that "genetic" means "manifests immediately upon birth".

So much for puberty -- or for that matter Tay-Sachs disease.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 13 Sep 2009 #permalink

regarding marth hebert and

www dot marthaherbert dot com

How many legitimate scientific researchers have a website of their own name?

I'm not suggesting they aren't out there, but you usually don't see it. Then again, most of the time, researchers have their own pages within the context of their institution.

Personally, the fact that she has her own web address raises my skeptical eyebrow. It has an air of self-promotion that worries me.

Maybe I hang out with the wrong type of researchers, but I don't know anyone who does such a thing.

Believe it or not, my local chapter of the Autism Society of American recommends Martha Herbert as a source of "mainstream" information on autism treatment. Apparently this is due to the fact that Herbert has a degree from Harvard.

Louise @12
Ya, those Harvard degrees are meaning less and less these days. We had a creationist lecturing in Boston recently with one of those Harvard degrees. Dumb as a rock. Oh, well.

Its a good thing the world doesn't have only this article and the foolish comments that follow it, (not mine of course) to go by. Its also too bad so many fools have opinions. Too bad you are misinformed, and lacking the compassion necessary to rid the world of autism, and the poisonist vaccines that cause it. Rot in hell.

You might think someone who was not a fool would realize this was a post from a year ago and realize that it is unlikdly to generate much discussion (of course I doubt this is the point of the post). Someone who was not a fool might also be able to point to specific problems with the post and the comments. At least the readers and author of this blog normally say why someone is a fool rather than simply state that it is the case.

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